Margaret Simons writes:




The good things: Coonan’s reforms are not all bad news. Limited multichannelling will start sooner
than expected, in 2009. Here is proof
that the government likes to look after “little Kerry” Stokes when it
can. His Channel Seven was the only existing
broadcaster strongly to back multichannelling, seeing it as a way into the pay
television market. The Packers will not
be pleased at the sooner than expected fragmentation of the already declining
free to air television market. Viewers, on the other hand, will likely get more
than twice the number of channels they have now. Whether there will be anything
worth watching is another question entirely. After all, only the existing
players get to own a multichannel. But there will be something worth watching
on ABC 2. The other Good Thing in the package is the lifting of the ridiculous
genre restrictions that have hobbled ABC and SBS digital channels. Starved of funding as the public broadcasters
are, it is unlikely that we will see huge quantities of new content on these
channels, but the wonderful ABC archives are a public resource without compare
and a deep well of quality content.

Community
television:
It wouldn’t have cost Coonan much to throw
community television stations a bone in this package, but she has left them out
in the cold – again. For some time community television stations have been
waiting to find out whether and when they will be given digital spectrum. At the moment, every time someone buys a
digital set-top box they lose access to community television, which is only
broadcast on analogue. This makes Australia
the only place in the world where switching to digital actually reduces your
choice of available content! Community television has the most diverse (if
least polished) content available in broadcasting – and it is also an important
training ground. CTV needs digital spectrum soon, or community television will be left
to fade away.

New
digital channels – fuzzy and worrying:
The government has
fudged the issue of the
two new digital “datacasting” channels to be awarded next year. There
are still too few details for us to be
able to judge whether these are next to useless playthings or
significant
additions to media choice. Another worrying thing is that in her March
discussion paper Coonan said these new licences would not go to
existing
broadcast networks. Worryingly, there is
no mention of this aspiration in the package released yesterday. Have
the moguls got the fix in? Might the new channels go to existing
players
after all? We know that the current free to air
stations have lobbied against these channels out of fear that they will
be a
fourth television network by stealth. Meanwhile
Coonan has been suggesting that the licence conditions will be
broadened to
make the channels more attractive. So
who is winning? The usually well-informed David Crowe in
yesterday’s Australian Financial Review
suggested that Coonan had been forced to drop the datacasting part of her
package. That clearly wasn’t right, but
I suspect Crowe wasn’t entirely wrong either.
Coonan has fudged it so as to save face and give herself some wriggle room
in the continuing battle. Given that the new channels are the only
benefit for consumers in the near future, it is extraordinary that we still
don’t know what they will be. It would
be nice to think that the government would just scrap the whole idea of
datacasting and provide a full fourth commercial television licence to a new
player. Don’t hold your breath.

Peter Fray

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